Thursday, 28 June 2007
One hundred not out.
Owen Powell - 28th June 2007
I was sitting in the bar of the Soho Theatre when Nedda bowled up quite hungover. She hadn’t been home since the night before. “I would like a tomato juice, please,” she said. She was wearing sunflower earrings and the biggest pair of sunglasses I had seen that month. “You know when you dress up in your mother’s clothes?” she said. “I think they make me look a bit like that.” She lit a cigarette and took a long pull on the tomato juice.
It was Nedda’s sister who had first read about the project, and she sent her the link from where she now lives in Singapore. Nedda had followed her to London originally, where both had started working as au pairs. Both hated it, Nedda only lasting a month. “They were spoilt kids, annoying brats,” she says dismissively. This was three years ago, before Hungary joined the EU, so Nedda worked on an au pair visa – but also managed to get some other work in bars at the same time. “It was totally illegal,” she cheerfully admits, “but people could have checked. I was given proper pay checks, I had an emergency NI code ...” She takes a long drag. “No-one was bothered.”
Nedda is now combining proper bar work – she’s at the American Bistro in Mayfair, whose regular clients include Robert De Niro – with a three year course in Interior Design at the University of Arts, Chelsea. She says she’s a bit disappointed with the course, although she’s learnt a lot, and gets on well with the people she’s doing it with. “A few of us have formed a team,” she says. “We’re from Hungary, Sweden, the US and England, and we plan to stay together after the course finishes, and start working as designers.”
One of her current design projects, although not really connected to the course, is renovating her flat in Budapest. “It has exposed walls, pipes showing – it needs a bit of work, but I want to do it up and rent it out as a holiday home. It’s gone up in value five times in the last seven years since I inherited it from my grandmother.”
Nedda’s grandmother leads us on to a fascinating insight into Hungarian life. “When she was at school, she learnt German as it was the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When my mother was at school she learnt Russian for eight years under Communism. When I was ten, in 1989, that all changed, and we were taught English. In fact, I went to a school run by nuns. Religion came back in a big wave after Communism stopped. These nuns were all 80 years old, and they’d been in exile in Argentina.” However, Nedda didn’t really get on with a religious education. “Whenever we did confession, the priests would tell the teachers everything we had said, it was so oppressive. I was thrown out when I was 14. I still feel religious now, but I don’t go to church any more.” Nedda checks her packet of cigarettes – it’s empty. “I need to go and get some more ...” she says. That’s ok, I say. I’ll get you another tomato juice.
When she gets back, Nedda reminisces about the end of Communism. “Daily life changed a lot. Pioneers, which is a Communist version of Scouts, finished. Suddenly, we went from state TV, where there was nothing at all on a Monday, to Sky, MTV, everything else. But really, it got worse. Before, everyone had good jobs, everyone had money. Then there was more competition, inflation, people lost their jobs. It’s not even what you’d call ‘Westernised’ now, for example, customer service does not exist in Hungary. We are popular with stag parties, though. I once saw a man on a plane complaining about losing his baggage. He was dressed as a beer bottle.”
After three years, Nedda feels at home here, but wouldn’t say yet that she’s a Londoner. “I would say that I am a Hungarian in London.” And are there many other Hungarians here, I ask. “Lots. Some of my friends have plans to work here, save money and buy a flat in Hungary. But they end up sitting in the house all night, buying stuff from Iceland and having a horrible time. It’s hard to save here, there’s too much to do.”
One thing Nedda finds great about London is the ease with which she can travel to the rest of the world. He shows me some photos from her recent trip to Thailand and Singapore (where she saw her sister). She feels much more cosmopolitan now. “One thing I don’t miss from Hungary is understanding all the conversations on the buses. Hungarian people are very negative. If you ask, ‘How are you?’ they will tell you all their problems.” We flick through some more photos. “In fact,” says Nedda, “when I am in Hungary, I miss London. I miss London food.”
Nedda’s going back to Hungary tomorrow, so will miss the start of the English smoking ban. I ask how she thinks she’ll cope when she returns. “Well,” she starts, “The bar where I work is perhaps not too well prepared. The owner smokes even in the non-smoking section, so who knows? They are talking about banning it in cars as well, which I don’t think will be a good idea. If you don’t let people have their cigarettes, they get more angry, and you don’t want more angry people on the roads.”
We head out onto Dean Street and say goodbye. A hundred people, I think. We’ve met a hundred people! How hard can it be to find another ninety-two?